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1999-2000 (Winter)

CIA Goes Hollywood: A Classic Case of Deception

By Antonio J. Mendez


By: Antonio J. Mendez

When briefing the CIA’s Directorate of Operations (DO) or other components of the Intelligence Community (IC) about the Office of Technical Services’ (OTS) exfiltration capability, I always made a point to remind them that “readiness” is the key. This is one of the full-time concerns of my former OTS office, the Graphics and Authentication Division (GAD).

In arranging for the escape of refugees and other people of potential intelligence value who are subject to political persecution and hostile pursuit, prior planning is not always possible because they show up at odd hours in out-of-the-way places. Current surveys and collection of up-to-date intelligence regarding travel controls and procedures are vital. OTS engages in this activity worldwide.

The readiness to move clandestine agents out of harm’s way using quasi-legal methods is equally important. CIA’s policy and practice are to bring its valuable human assets in from the cold when they can no longer remain in place. Sometimes this includes their families. Public Law 110 gives the IC the authority to resettle these people in the United States as US persons when the time comes, and the quota allows. . . .

The operational involvement of GAD officers in the exfiltration from Iran of six US State Department personnel on 28 January 1980 was a closely held secret until the CIA decided to reveal it as part of the Agency’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 1997.

David Martin, the CBS News correspondent covering national security issues in Washington, DC, had the story early on, as did Mike Ruane of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Canadian Broadcasting Company and Reader’s Digest both have done serious pieces since the CIA opened the files on this important success story, the operation codenamed Argo.

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Editor’s Notes: “Tony” Mendez died on January 19, 2019. Lengthy obituaries in The Washington Post and New York Times marked his death the same day. The rare clandestine officer achieved fame after the operation described in this article was made public as part of CIA’s 50th anniversary celebration. In 2012, Mendez told the story in a book published in 2012, Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History (Viking). A movie, Argo, directed by Ben Affleck soon followed. CIA’s chief historian, David Robarge, reviewed both in an article in Studies, “Operation Argo in Book and Film, in the March 2013 issue (vol 57, no. 1). In September 2018, Studies Editorial Board Chairman Peter Usowski and CIA Public Affairs officer Sarah Lichterman interviewed Chay Carter, one of the executive producers of the film Argo, about the film’s genesis and making, including the instances in which creative license was required in its filming. (“ARGO Producer Chay Carter: Thinking about Film and the World of Intelligence” in Studies 63, no. 2 (June 2019).

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